Getting realism: Ben Johnson talks about a controversial painting show in Birmingham

By Mark Sheerin | 23 January 2014

On the occasion of a landmark show at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, photorealist painter Johnson discusses his oft-dismissed genre with Mark Sheerin

Photorealist painting of a view across Trafalgar Square, London
Ben Johson, Looking Back to Richmond House (2011). Private Collection, courtesy Plus One Gallery© VG-Bildkunst. photo © Ben Johnson. All rights reserved DACS.
For an artist usually tied to his studio, Ben Johnson is affable, articulate and disarming. We meet at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, where obsession and introversion colour all the works in the current show.

His own pieces, The Rookery and Looking Back to Richmond House, took months to finish. Because like all the artists here, Johnson is one of that maligned breed; he is a photorealist.

“It is quite astonishing that in the 21st century there is still a hierarchy mentally for some people, that there is fine art, there is applied art and craft and commercial art,” he says, defending his colleagues.

It’s not even as if, like certain other –isms, photorealism is a bona fide movement. This all-consuming style precludes meeting other artists. “You’re spending 12 to 18 hours a day in your studio,” claims Johnson. “You aren’t going out to the pubs and the clubs.”

The artist appears very at ease with the word craft and claims that what unites the 34 painters in the show is “an obsession with making.” Some critics may not like these virtuoso displays of technique, but according to one such master of it the single-minded focus of these works is a form of meditation.

“I would much rather have a good piece of craft, a piece of good craft, than a bad painting,” he says, quite reasonably. But when the artist begins to talk about his own process, the word craft stretches to its limits. Johnson will use photographs, a computer, assistants and up to 200 stencils. ”It’s almost like a very elaborate piece of print making,“ he explains.

Colour photo of a modernist interior in Chicago
Ben Johnson, The Rookery (1995), Private Collection, London© VG-Bildkunst. photo © Ben Johnson. All rights reserved DACS.
Yet it remains a piece of craft, he says, because the final result is tactile. Along with all the works in the show here, Johnson’s two pieces demonstrate “a passion for manipulating paint.” He says he would never use a computer to simply print a finished product.

Before now there have been visitors to shows like these who come away disappointed to learn that photos, projectors, stencils and computers are all part of the artistic process. But Johnson heads off such objections at the pass.

“I use technology as a way of giving myself a detachment from the surface, to stop being Romantic, or over-gestural, and I want the geometry to shine through,”  he says. “What I’m driven by is a love of geometry."

That’s not to say that Johnson doesn’t take a small amount of poetic licence to shift his architectural elements by hand. He won’t, for example, use CAD software. Every building requires its own vanishing point.

And here comes the meditative angle: “Perspective is almost a philosophical path that I follow,” says Johnson. “It’s a way of describing objects in space and it’s been around for many hundreds of years...and it’s something that is very, very important to me.”

Given that his works take so long, you may wonder what draws him to certain landscape or interior subjects. But says the artist: “It’s the rightness of place. My work is now about celebrating a space where one can put one’s feet down and feel very anchored.”

In the case of Looking Back to Richmond House, that anchored spot was the roof of London’s National Gallery. So whoever said that photorealists were not conceptual enough should think again.

We walk around the show for a while and look at favourite works. Johnson is impressed by works by Clive Head and Franz Gertsch. Once you get beyond the diners and the classic cars, there is a wealth of choice in subject matter.

All of it is easy on the eye, which may well be another reason why some critics sniff at this genre.

“I think that somebody who was intimidated by the prospect of confronting contemporary art will not have a problem here,“ says Johnson.

“They may find it over sweet in places, and there are some paintings which I think are inappropriate in the 21st century.”

But, he adds, astonishment, bedazzlement and wonder are “totally legitimate” repsonses. Even if, he does argue, well-honed techniques like his own are not the only point of the work.

“That’s the language,” he says. “You’ve got to listen to what people are saying. And some people are saying some very serious things...listen to what they’re saying, then make your decisions.”

  • Photorealism at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until March 30 2014. Open 10am-5pm (10.30am-5pm Friday). Admission £3-£6.50.

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